Deftly balancing a coming-of-age story with coping with a loved one’s mental health issues, Banter Jar has the audience laughing one minute and contemplating their own relationships the next. Directed by Chris Larner, Hannah Baker’s semi-autobiographical account of life in Coventry initially pulls you in with anecdotes of school days and quirky characters on buses. But amid the focus on life’s absurdities, we find within the show bittersweet truths that are hiding in plain sight.
There’s a saying attributed to Robin Williams that is a universal truth: “Everyone is meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” And so it is in Banter Jar that we find that every character is wrestling with a personal struggle, whether others recognise the conflicts or not. Baker’s namesake within the show admits to partaking in self-harm on occasion, although it’s not something that she advertises. And while “Hannah’s” mother ekes it out as a hardworking teacher and single parent, “Hannah’s” best friend Rachel has a complex relationship with her skin colour and self-image – an opinion not shared by others.
This sense of dissonance between one’s private thoughts and the world at large is at the core of the show. When we hear of “Hannah’s” boyfriend Ezekiel and his “episode”, we recognise that this is something that can “make or break” a relationship. Of course, in an ideal world, when you love someone, you know the “worst” thing about them and you still accept them without reservation, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Given “Hannah’s” non-judgemental demeanour, it is perhaps no surprise that the “family friend” that she’s regularly in contact with also has a bipolar disorder. As someone who recognises her own ‘demons’, “Hannah” perhaps instinctively draws like-minded individuals to herself.
From the points I’ve previously made, one would be forgiven for thinking Banter Jar ‘wallows in misery’, but nothing could be further from the truth. Baker’s humorous, self-deprecating way of looking at the world permeates the entire show, from the passenger who keeps on asking “Who ate all the pies?” to her good luck/bad luck when busking. Rooted in personal history, Banter Jar plays to Baker’s strengths as a physical performer and comedienne. But more than that, Baker has crafted a heartwarming tale that has ‘substance’, as well as laughter.
© Michael Davis 2022
Banter Jar runs at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre from 10th-14th May.